Bill Lawrence riffs on UNDATEABLE and taking the show on the road
As a fan shows involving Bill Lawrence (SCRUBS, CLONE HIGH, COUGAR TOWN), when it was announced last spring at NBC up-fronts that a new show called UNDATEABLE was coming, I was predisposed to be a fan. Add to the list of reasons to tune in: one of my favorite stand-up comics (Chris D’Elia, a favorite since the GLORY DAZE, well, days) and Briga Heelan, fresh from a great turn as Grayson’s baby-mama on CT and coming off of a killer season on another Doozer show, GROUND FLOOR. After spending months “with these guys” through Vine and YouTube videos of their killer sets at comedy clubs all over the country, it was a no-brainer that it would become one of the most anticipated shows of the season for me.
Though we don’t know exactly when the show will premiere, the cast and crew of UNDATEABLE have been busy putting together a stand up tour to a handful of larger cities across the country featuring Lawrence doing stand-up, and ending the night with a set by D’Elia, whose WHITE MAN, BLACK COMIC was a hit comedy special for Comedy Central in December. D’Elia’s costars – Brent Morin, Rick Glassman, and Ron Funches – joined him on the road, and the results have been a hit.
Earlier this week, I had the chance to head into Philly to see their show at Underground Arts, a hole-in-the-wall but up-and-coming scene in the Loft District, where they slayed me for the better part of 2 hours. Before the show, which featured new material from Ron, Rick (who, as I told him afterwards, basically made me cry in the best way), Brent, and Chris, I had a chance to sit down with creator Bill Lawrence (whose stand up, I might add, was really funny) to talk about UNDATEABLE, the tour, and why a show like this should, and will, succeed!
Was it a conscious effort to cast these guys because they are stand-up comedians?
You crushed it! Look, I love multi-camera sitcoms. SPIN CITY was one, I worked on FRIENDS. I grew up on them. CHEERS still holds up. SEINFELD still holds ups. I wanted to do a multi-camera sitcom. The problem – you’re a TV nerd like me, I assume, you watch it constantly – multi-camera is about writing and execution, but it’s also about connecting to the audience, being able to vibe off a live audience and make jokes. That chemistry comes usually with a whole year. Shows don’t get a year anymore. You have to have chemistry in like, 4 episodes [laughs], right? We had two ideas. One was, I said I was going to cast a large number of stand-up comics, because I feel like they know how to vibe off of a live audience, and the second one, which is the really freaky part of this show, is I said I was going to cast people who are friends in real life, so the chemistry thing is there. These four guys [Chris D’Elia, Brent Morin, Ron Funches, and Rick Glassman] – three of them have known each other for more than 8 years. They tour together. Two of them live together. One of them is a buddy that they’ve known for 5 years, and the chemistry was immediate. And that they’re comics, when we shoot it in front of a live audience, we do one take as written, and the second two takes they’re allowed to say whatever the hell they want. It’s so riff-y – [camera guys are working around us as we talk] we’re filming a documentary of those guys doing stand up and this silly tour – it’s so riff-y that half the time in front of the audience, Chris D’Elia will stop and go “Bill, how do I get back to the scene? I don’t know what the scene is about anymore!” [laughs]. It’s super fun. The show is really good. NBC is having a great year. Not as great a year with comedy, but I’m confident, the show is really going to work. I feel like it’s going to work.
Is it hard with a network like NBC that hasn’t found that breakout comedy in a while?
You know what’s really hard? NBC’s having a great year. People don’t know it unless they’re people like you and me, they follow TV. They’re killing it in drama, they had the Olympics, THE VOICE is killing. Comedies are not crushing. What’s hard is launching a comedy at NBC –
Bill: I’m doing an interview!
Brent: Sorry!! I’m doing a sound check to make sure the lighting is good, you know, so that when she writes the review, she doesn’t say “UNDATEABLE cast bombs, as well as Bill Lawrence, due to a poorly lit show!” So yeah!
Bill continues: [laughs] It’s hard launching a show in the modern landscape without a star. You know, I have another show going on FOX, with Chris Meloni [SURVIVING JACK] – I love it, they’re just promoting the Chris Meloni show. You’re going to see him everywhere – talk shows or whatever. For us, we’re going to take these guys around, because they’re stand-ups. They’re just killing it everywhere. This is the first time we’ve been in my grandfather’s basement [laughs], but it’s funny enough, it’s daunting, but it’s funny enough that I haven’t done stand up in 20 years, and for me to be back up on stage it’s horrifying, but! It’s scary to be on NBC but I think we can pull it off. There’s an opportunity that exists, if you find a niche audience at all. The secret, and I haven’t said it yet – this tour isn’t about these shows. These guys are touring anyways. It’s about word of mouth, but also about two other things. One is, the way TV works now is they say “hey you’re on”, sometimes they go “hey you’re on in two weeks,” and it’s too late to promote it. We know when we’re coming on; we just gotta wait, because that’s the way it works. We’re going to be on in the Spring. And the second one is that if anybody checks the cities we’re going to, they’re all of the biggest NBC affiliates in the country, and they choose their own local promo time during their news and their syndicated shows. And for me to bring some of those guys to shows and take our comics over to meet them, that’s the way you used to do it in the olden days. Put faces to names and say – Robin Williams isn’t on this show, help us out! So I think we’ve got a chance.
In a situation like that, where you can’t say “Robin Williams is on this show,” what do you say to people about UNDATEABLE as a show that is special or a show that deserves their time?
I’m selling two things – I’m selling flat out funny, and I think that one of the issues for me with comedy – I did a single camera comedy show, and I love it, I love the medium, and a lot of people kill it. I think sometimes in television, we’re erring on those shows that are almost dramedies. They way we’re selling it, and why we’re taking these guys around – if you just want to bust a gut laughing, this show is laugh out loud funny.
I watch five seconds of Vines with them, back and forth, and it feels like they’re people who NEED to be on TV.
They just make me laugh, you know what I mean? The other thing – I think that TV is escapism. You want to be people you want them to be friends with in real life, you want to hang out with them. The fact that these four guys spend time with each other anyways. You’ll notice when you see their shows tonight – Chris mentored Brent when Brent started out in comedy. Brent and Rick live together. Rick and Brent tour with Ron. The only bummer is that there’s not a lot of stakes on this show professionally, because these guys are all so talented, they’ll do it forever, but they’re enjoying working with each other, on a show with your best friends, they’re all worried that they won’t get that opportunity again. To me, I’m selling a bunch of guys, and by the way, there are some super talented straight out actors, actresses on the show, too. Briga Heelan and Bianca [Kajlich] – Bianca’s 6 months pregnant, it’s like “hey Bianca, you want to go out just to wave to people at comedy clubs all around America?” “PASS” [laughs] You know what I mean? Just large and immediate pass! You’ll see, it’ll be platformed. We’ll do this to meet the people, and then when they announce the [premiere] date, then we’ll have these guys on talk shows, they’ve all done Conan, they’ve all done Fallon. They’ll do it all.
You’ve been the guy who does these grassroots campaigns, with the wine outings for COUGAR TOWN. Did that have a really positive effect on the show?
I think that show only got picked up because of it! I discovered two things – one, that’s a bummer, is that there is no accessing Nielsen families.
I have yet to meet one that exists.
Me neither! Go around the country to find 26,000 people. You can’t do it. The other side of the coin is that networks are aware of that. They get it. If you can build a niche, cultish, loyal fanbase that follows your show around in the modern landscape, you can survive forever. You can be COMMUNITY, you can be COUGAR TOWN, you can be PARKS AND REC. The reason it helped last time was we entered a new era that maybe a show gets made and it’s not right for one network, but maybe it’s right for somebody else. The problem is, you have to let the network see that. COUGAR TOWN is a great example – we were on ABC for three years. Here’s what I know – if we had not done that tour, TBS would not have been as excited about buying somebody else’s castaway. The second you’re doing that, and it returns some of the power to journalism, too, the second that you’re doing that thing, and accessing fans, and showing people snapshots of the passion for the show, and that an audience is still willing to follow it around, you know, and that people are writing about it, that it’s creatively sound, it made the new buyer excited to treat it as their own thing, and re-launch it. They’ve taken such good care of it. It’s, for me, made a new paradigm, and I see other people doing it, too. I think that these things create, once you have that spider web of social media, and TV nerds that read you, that stuff. You create this network of a fan base that if you feed them content and access, you can keep a show alive.
Everyone I talk to couldn’t tell me what network or when a show is on. They rely on the title and their DVR.
My parents don’t watch TV the way they used to.
My parents have an HDTV and can’t even find High Def channels.
[laughs] Yeah, see, exactly! The second that you acknowledge that, that no one watches television the same, no one says “when’s that show on.” I don’t. I’m obsessive about TV. I still it watch it constantly. Never watch commercials, by the way [laughs]. Something a guy who writes television shouldn’t say, but I love it too much. I get more in without them!
What are some things that UNDATEABLE will do as a show – stories, ideas –
I would say that this as throwback as they come. It’s about the performers. Look, it’s set in a bar, it’s set in Detroit because the guy that created it, Adam Sztykiel, he’s over there, that handsome young guy in the motorcycle jacket [points to his handsome co-creator – fun fact – he’s writing the WE’RE THE MILLERS sequel]. He and I have written together for a long time. He’s from Detroit, the other EP is from Detroit, it’s kind of an underdog city. One of the mistakes that multi-camera shows make, now that single camera comedies are prevalent and fun – you can’t be a multi-cam where it’s like “hey it’s three hip guys living in the city, and they’re here and they’re at clubs,” it always looks fake. The best multi-cams for me are CHEERS, RAYMOND. Ones where it’s a stage play – it’s about the dialogue. It’s about the characters. We use CHEERS as a model. I think we left the bar, they have a bar and they have an apartment, and other than those two sets, I doubt we left more than 4 or 5 times all year. For us, I know the show is working because the biggest thing – when we edit the shows down, I never use fake laughs. I use it as a barometer of what to cut, but we have to shorten the laughs, otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to include as much material, because those guys just crush as comedians. They make up half of what they say. And then people afterwards say “hey I loved it when they said that” and I go “thank you!” even though I had never heard it until like ten minutes before [laughs].
Is it difficult when they riff, and that’s the audience take – as a writer?
It depends on who you are as a writer. You know? I love it. I especially love it in multi-cam. I did in SCRUBS, too. Some writers, more power to them. Aaron Sorkin, you can’t replace an “and” with an “also,” you can’t replace a comma. It’s “as,” it’s not “also!” That’s fine. I love actors on television gaining ownership of their characters and playing around. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going “hey, whatever you say, we’re going to use it.” It’s gotta beat what we wrote! [the UNDATEABLE theme blares from the speakers] Oh hey, that’s the UNDATEABLE theme! – I still say that we battle them pretty strong, and they’ve very respectful of the writing. Those guys know that we’re all in the same world. That’s what’s great about working with comedians. And comedic actresses. And Bianca and Briga have both done it forever, too.
Loved Briga in GROUND FLOOR.
Oh my gosh! She is such a talented young lady. You should see her sing, too. She just rocks it out! Everybody is accusing me of potentially casting people, because I’m trying to build the SCRUBS Broadway musical, of casting people like Briga, Skylar [Astin, GROUND FLOOR], and Brent. Brent can just rip it up. All people that can be JD and Elliot if I need them, too!
Did you get any tips from the guys for your stand up?
You know what, I did it enough when I was younger. I can’t tell you if they’ve enjoyed it more when I’ve done well or when I’ve done poorly, so far [laughs]. I think they enjoy it when I struggle, but they’re such good guys, that they’re happy for me when it goes well. My goal, I can’t be horrible, because in LA we’re in a 1,000 seat theater. It’ll be fun for you to contrast this – it’s really weird. Chris plays mostly theaters. We had to book rooms based on when we can meet with the affiliates, so it will be fun to parallel this which is kind of a rock n roll club, I don’t even know if there will be 40 people here [it was sold out, so definitely more than 40 showed up]. Compare this with the theater at the end, the Avalon in Hollywood, you’ll love it!
The UNDATEABLE tour continues tonight March 12 in Dallas, followed by shows in Houston (3/13), Chicago (3/17), Detroit (3/18), and culminating in the final big event on March 20, in LA. Do whatever you can to get to a show – these guys are hilarious, and I promise you that as cliché as it may sound, your cheeks will hurt from laughing so hard for such a long stretch of time!
UNDATEABLE will air this spring on NBC – stay tuned for news about the air date when we get it!
My thanks to Bill, Chris, and Marc for making it all happen!